When it comes to bumbling, nonsensical embarrassments, the Tampa Bay Bucs are an unmatchable _ perhaps incurable _ pro football tradition.
Welcome to their world, Trent Dilfer.
He's big, strong and blessed with a laser-gun pitching arm. Dilfer has combat intensity. Snarling competitiveness. Boundless confidence. But on the $16-million quarterback's inaugural Sunday as an NFL starter, Dilfer was a Candlestick calamity.
He fit right in.
Tampa Bay could've kept it close, at least temporarily, against fearsome San Francisco if Barney Bussey hadn't interfered where he might've intercepted, if Hardy Nickerson hadn't been flagged for holding as teammate Thomas Everett was intercepting a Niners pass, if Everett had scooped instead of butterfingering a football fumbled by Ricky Watters and if Sam Wyche didn't feel he needs to continually say "I didn't do a good enough coaching job."
If... if... if... if
If they weren't Bucs.
Dilfer's statistics against the Niners had the scent of landfill, which is the official Buccaneer team aroma. Twenty-three passes, seven completions. Forty-five yards. Forty-damned-five. Trent was wild high, mentally outfoxed, bodily badgered and eventually benched.
"I got baptized into the NFL," Dilfer said. "San Francisco got after me and I didn't react well. I made some bad throws, bad reads and bad decisions. But the NFL hasn't seen the last of me, nor anything that's near the best of me. I'll be back. Next time, I'll be better. Time after that, I'll be better yet."
As for his Bucs associates...
Tampa Bay had a nose-bloodying game plan, to get flamboyantly physical with 15-point favorite San Francisco. Bucs head coach Sam Wyche would say, "We were really, really ready to play" and "thought we had an excellent chance of winning." But, added Sam, the minimum goal of Tampa Bay was to show the 49ers "we are a tough, mean a--, nasty football team."
It didn't work.
Not much did.
San Francisco, despite being cracked for two late touchdowns after erstwhile Bucs starter Craig Erickson replaced Dilfer, laid a 41-16 knockout punch on Tampa Bay's infamous glass jaw.
Did the Bucs accomplish anything Sunday? Well, yes, they left Niners fuming. San Francisco's locker room bubbled with accusations that Tampa Bay was, as cornerback Eric Davis put it, "the dirtiest team we've ever played."
Niners safety Dana Hall said Tampa Bay "showed me nothing but cheap-shot, low-grade, unsuccessful football. I've never seen NFL players with less personal class than their 86 (tight end Tyji Armstrong) and 28 (special teamer/wide receiver Curtis Buckley)."
Wyche complained that Sunday's officiating crew often "seemed to operate according to reputations."
In other words, the Bucs are reputed losers, so they got wronged, and the Niners are four-time Super Bowl champs, so they were favored.
Reality, or paranoia?
Sam, let's try something new.
Last time the Bucs came to the West Coast, they were charged in 1993 _ after another defeat _ of being cheap-shotters against, of all people, the Los Angeles Raiders. That's like being called "rowdy, scruffy and scary" by the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang.
I'm not sure what Wyche's next tactic will be. He's gone to Dilfer at quarterback, then back to Erickson. He's tried the Bucs-be-mean tactic and been mightily defeated.
Tampa Bay is 2-5, on sad course for the franchise's 12th consecutive double-digit-loss season. Even in Texas, the ugly weather will eventually subside. In the Middle East, the eternal warring may even eventually ease. But will the Bucs ever break their mold, or mode, or consistent malfunction?
Do the Bucs grow, perhaps painfully, with the boyish Dilfer, or do they revert to the more stable but perhaps less-bombastic Erickson? Do they concentrate more on execution of plays, or trying to become the NFL's noted executioners?
Questions are endless, answers so persistently unreachable.